As Lt. Gen. David M. Rodriguez prepares to step down as the top operational commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, the picture he leaves behind is, judging by his assessment, a little bit cloudy.
Rodriguez, briefing reporters on Wednesday, says the coalition forces that have been under his day-to-day control for the past two years are making “indisputable” progress in the war. And, true enough, they captured or killed more than 1,000 insurgents over the past six months, approximately 250 percent more than in the same period last year. They have also seen a 300 percent increase in the number of weapons caches discovered this spring compared with the same period last year.
But more than a year after the start of the “surge” of U.S. troops into Afghanistan, violence is up slightly since this time last year, Rodriguez said, and it probably won’t come down before year’s end. Meantime, he said, Pakistan still isn’t doing enough to halt the movement of insurgents and improvised explosive devices across the Afghan border. And American forces are still taking heavy casualties.
According to a tally by the Associated Press, the overall casualty rate for NATO forces has declined by about 14 percent in the first half of the year, but the number of U.S. service members who died in combat remained virtually unchanged: 197 this year compared with 195 in the first six months of last year.
Rodriguez, who is returning stateside to take over the U.S. Army Forces Command, said that while violence is up in some areas in Afghanistan and down in others, it would be a mistake to measure progress by the volume of attacks. In Iraq, insurgent violence receded within several months of the arrival of the first surge forces, but Rodriguez said the rural nature of the insurgency in Afghanistan makes it difficult to replicate the same quick turnaround.
“The most important indicator of progress is really how the Afghan people go about their daily business and participate in their daily lives and participate in their government,” he said via satellite.
The key, Rodriguez emphasized, was building up Afghan national security forces, which are growing in number and capability. By next summer, there will be an additional 70,000 Afghan security personnel in the field, and they should be assuming more command and control responsibilities.
As an example of the improvement of the Afghan security forces, Rodriguez cited their performance in the attack last week on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul. The attack killed 11 civilians, and was a serious blow to Afghans’ sense of security in the nation’s capital.
But Rodriguez said Afghan security forces prevented suicide bombers from inflicting even higher casualties. They chased the attackers onto the roof, where they were killed in NATO helicopter strikes.
In the briefing, Rodriguez said that the Afghans and NATO forces worked together to “hasten the demise of the enemy.”
Of the Afghan security forces, he said: “They would have got to it in a little bit of time.”
Asked whether progress in the war wa “fragile and reversible” — the oft-quoted phrase being used up and down the chain of command — Rodriguez responded in the affirmative.
“Because this is about Afghan people’s trust and confidence,” he said, “we’ve still got a little bit more way to go.”